Thirty-Six Frames

Sitting in my makeshift darkroom, I shut off the water spilling into the developing tank. My prize waits in its cocoon of chemicals. I uncoil the film, memories strangely unfamiliar in their plasticky permanence.

Images accentuate life. A picture of soldiers tiptoeing through a dystopian battlefield was one of the earliest to lodge itself in my memory. This was “overseas”, I was told. So when Dad departed home to begin our new life “overseas”, I was utterly convinced that New Zealand would embody the visual hellscape I once saw on TV.

My fears were quelled by new sights to the contrary—suburbs, pukekos, black sand beaches—when Mum and I packed our bags and landed. We never really unpacked. In the twelve years since, I’ve moved house ten times. As the restless years picked me up and dropped me off at new thresholds, I erased myself everyway from the places of my childhood. Best friends would melt, time and again, into memory.

With each new bedroom came a plethora of to-dos; new routines and busy parents left little room for reflection. Although I was in the habit of crisply punctuating every moment with my digital SLR camera, my past was no clearer to me for it. It was too easy to relentlessly snap away; abundance quashed “preservation” into a blurry, unending stream. If one picture speaks a thousand words, I carried millions of words all spoken at once.

I inspect my memories for scratches.

I wouldn’t care so much about these negatives if I hadn’t discovered Mum’s old Nikon and a solitary roll of film. I rationed that roll over a whole summer. I was a selective guardian of thirty-six tiny moments, able to etch my viewpoints into something tangible. As I selected, condensed, and haphazardly stitched together intermittent points in time, I practised deliberate reflection in specific moments. I grounded myself in reserving space for analogue in a shifting digital world.

Film’s permanency is potent because it stores authenticity. I imagine the unfiltered light hitting the gelatine coating as directly imprinting people and emotions onto myself. Only the handpicked ones, that is. Perhaps paradoxically, this mindful sensitivity made me feel stronger and in control.

I scan and examine the negatives.

In this one, the apples on our tree are ripening in the backyard. My father holds a pumpkin up to the branches, chortling as if he happened upon it growing there. I crystallise the moment in silver halides, and every so often as the two of us sit down to dinner, I’ll think of that photo.

Next photo.

Upper Tama Lake greets me when I finally arrive, drenched wet and windburned. On the sixth and final day of our hike, a question had divided our group: Should we take the uphill scenic detour rather than a shower? Two hours later, the sight of the blue glass water urges me to always say, “Yes.”

I am in Queenstown snapping shots on a twilight walk, unknowingly blackening seven frames as the dusk sneaks in. In fact, my startled face darts out of the top corner of one underexposed picture. I designate these as experiments in refinement, not mistakes. Here, actual memory will have to suffice.

Film has permitted me introspective reflection. This, in turn, has led to extroverted expression. The values and connotations I preserve on camera are channelled into future images as new perspectives. The frame doesn’t need or want me inside, yet it has always permitted self-expression within its walls. I can exhibit who and what I love within them: the squishy balls of stardust I call my friends, the tennis courts on which I drill serves like drumming a rhythm. That’s more me than my physical likeness.

I still shoot digital extensively, but usually for school events or art class projects. Film is my treat. Thirty-six frames were not made for indulgence, so I live first and photograph second. Every captured photon is a breath briefly bridging the linearity of time, asking me to observe and remember the moments that eventually constitute myself.

I load another roll into the camera for tomorrow.